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Short-term fixes for the Orlando Magic’s slow start

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Shooting, rebounding, and poor decision-making have the Magic in an early hole

NBA: Orlando Magic at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The early (correct) reaction to the Orlando Magic’s 1-2 record has been to preach patience. Plenty of stats suggest the Magic are more unlucky than bad, and maybe the early struggles will serve as motivation to capture last season’s urgency. As Evan Fournier suggested after the loss to Toronto, “When we had that good stretch last year we were playing extremely well because our mentality was different. It was never backing down against anybody, our backs against the wall. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be playing like that now, we gotta be tougher.”

Then again, you can’t blame it all on luck, and I’m certain the coaching staff is already making small changes, hoping to avoid bigger ones down the line. Here are three ways the Magic have struggled and how they might try to fix those problems.

Unsustainable Bad Shooting

We all know the Magic can’t get shots to fall right now, but let’s put the shooting woes into perspective. Orlando is collectively shooting 43.4 eFG% (39 FG%, 26 3PT%)...which is dramatically worse than last year’s worst-shooting team, the New York Knicks, at 49 eFG%.

To really hammer home how bad that is, that difference is larger than the gap between #30 and #3 last season. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest the Magic could be 3-0 if they merely were as bad as last year’s worst team.

Can we nail down why the Magic can’t make shots? I think we can rule out degree of difficulty. Per nba.com/stats, the Magic take the second fewest pull-up jumpers, and the sixth most catch-and-shoot jumpers. In other words, aside from Terrence Ross, it’s not like the Magic are trying to create difficult shots off the dribble.

Indeed, the Magic are just embarrassingly bad on wide-open shots. Always take this data with a grain of salt (tracking defender distance is notoriously wonky), but NBA.com suggests the Magic have hit about 4 out of every 20 wide-open shots (defined as defender over 6 feet away).

The lack of outside shooting might be feeding into close-range problems, too. Orlando is making 44% of their “paint-touch” shots, and they’re the only team under 50% in that category. When spacing is nonexistent, defenders can contest everything close to the basket, and Orlando has been forced into a lot of difficult floaters rather than getting all the way to the hoop for layups.

The fix:
Just...shoot better? We can identify a few specific players who are under-shooting (Vucevic, Gordon, Ross being the biggest culprits), and while we know the Magic have historically been bad shooters, they’re just not this bad. Give it time, and things will come around.

Getting into some kind of rhythm would probably help, and a path toward being “in rhythm” starts by running a more sensible offensive style. More on that later...

(One word of warning: the shooting luck hasn’t just gone against the Magic. Opponents have only shot 27% from distance against Orlando, and that’s bound to come around, too. Like the last half-decade, shooting is just going to be a disadvantage for Orlando.)

NBA: Orlando Magic at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Rebounding

One way to make up for bad shooting is to crash the glass, but they Magic are below-average on the offensive end. They rebound 22% of their misses, 4th lowest in the league. Some of this is by choice: Steve Clifford teams always punt on the offensive glass in favor of getting back on defense.

To their credit, they’re elite rebounding on defense, 3rd in the league at 78%. This data perfectly encapsulates their awful-offense/great-defense identity...it’d just be nice if we could upgrade “awful” to “mediocre.”

The fix:
My initial thought was “Maybe Mo Bamba is the problem,” but the data just doesn’t support that conclusion. If anything, Bamba’s presence on the court has led to more offensive boards, not less. The Magic’s least offensive rebounding happens with Jonathan Isaac on the court, and I’m not about to argue that he’s replaceable.

Unfortunately, the poor spacing is likely contributing to the availability of offensive rebounding opportunities. When opponents aren’t forced to stay out on shooters, they’re closer to the rim contest rebounds, especially those heavy-traffic floaters I mentioned before.

If the Magic want to plan around their poor shooting, and if they can’t capitalize on misses around the basket, they can coach players to be ready for 3-point misses instead. 3-pointers often lead to long rebounds, and the Magic’s length means they should be able to get to those bounces. I don’t know if the math works out, if sacrificing some transition defense is worth the gains on offense, but it’s an option if things don’t turn around.

Poor Choices On Offense

Two players I’ll single out in this category: Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic.

Gordon’s struggles were especially evident in the first quarter against Toronto, and part of the problem was his regression—again—into wannabe ball-handler. Against the Raptors’ high-quality wing defenders, AG had no shot of creating dribble penetration, leading to wasted time and lousy shots at the end of the clock. He went away from those moves as the game went on, and I think it helped the Magic slowly work their way back, but Gordon needs to find a different way to contribute on offense.

Vucevic’s game has been even more perplexing to me, particularly as a distributor. Hopefully his long-range shooting will return, but in the meantime I wonder why the Magic have gone away from him in the high-post. I’m not a huge fan of post-ups in general, but Vucevic has unique value as a playmaker from that spot on the court. Some of this comes from poor shooting, but after averaging 3.8 assists per game last season, he only has 2 assists per game early this season.

The fix:
Use Vucevic’s post game to open things up for Gordon. Orlando is running their offense backwards right now, letting Gordon handle the ball while Vucevic waits to see what happens. It should be the other way around: Let Vooch catch the ball in the high post, then find Gordon while he’s on the move and can either shoot an open shot or have full momentum going straight to the rim.

Changes I Wouldn’t Make...Yet

  • Change the starting lineup - We’ve already seen these five work just fine in the past, and making a dramatic change like this threatens to throw unnecessary chaos into the situation. I’ve seen calls to elevate Markelle Fultz to a starting role, but that seems extremely premature. Fultz has been good, certainly, but D.J. has been fine, too. In other words, even if Fultz was a starting-caliber guard, he doesn’t actually solve the Magic’s current problems.
  • Replace Bamba with Khem Birch - I wouldn’t say Bamba is lighting the world on fire or anything, but he hasn’t been miserably bad (technically, he’s actually shooting above average, relative to the rest of the team). Orlando should absolutely keep this option in mind, but I’d give things a little more time before making that switch.